You’re unlikely to find a larger congregation of Nobel-prize winners than on the island of Lindau in southern Germany. Each year, a couple of dozen laureates from one of the four Nobel disciplines descend on Lindau’s ‘Inselhalle’ conference centre for a week of talks and discussions in the picturesque surrounds of Lake Constance. The 2009 meeting is devoted to chemistry, and next year’s (marking the 60th anniversary of the Lindau meetings) is a mega event with prizewinners from all disciplines. Yet despite laureates being safely corralled on the island, tracking one down during breaks to ask a few questions is tougher than you might think.
One solution is to follow the crowds. From the moment the laureates debark from the buses or cars transporting them each morning from their rather plush looking hotel on the mainland, they tend to be mobbed by the 600 or so young researchers who have come to learn from and be inspired by those at the top of their game. This is, after all, the point of the Lindau meetings — to help ensure scientific expertise doesn’t get lost between generations. If a journalist or television crew manages to grab the sleeve of a laureate first, it isn’t long before a few young researchers (who are mostly PhD students and postdocs from all over the world) gather to listen to what they have to say.
At least, that was my experience of last year’s physics meeting. Perhaps chemistry laureates have less of the ‘rock star’ status bestowed on physics laureates, but I doubt it. The Nobel prize has an air about it that other prestigious scientific awards don’t rival, often giving recipients iconic status in the public sphere. Many laureates describe how upon winning the prize they are suddenly expected to be experts on everything and are inundated with invitations to turn up at events, endorse products or call for Israeli–Palestinian cease fires. US cosmologist George Smoot (who shared the 2006 Nobel prize in physics for his work on the relic radiation from the Big Bang) told me at last year’s meeting, however, that laureates have “more purchase” in Europe than they do in the US, which has received more than a third of all the Nobels awarded.
Of course, like any of us, most laureates do have interests outside of their work. Indeed, at this year’s meeting, Swiss chemist Richard Ernst (who won the 1991 Nobel for his work on NMR spectroscopy) will argue that without developing passions outside science, an individual may lack the ultimate scientific insight. And US chemist Peter Agre will describe how his fascination for water and the “canoe wilderness” of the US–Canada boundary, where he grew up, were part of a grand adventure that led to his discovery of cellular water channels, for which he shared the 2003 Nobel prize for chemistry. That said, I am reminded of the advice to students offered by physicist Douglas Osheroff (co-recipient of the 1996 physics Nobel for his work on superfluidity) at last year’s meeting: avoid too many commitments that require you to be out of the lab at fixed times, such as language lessons or dance classes, because research does not adhere to a schedule.
Like many Nobel laureates, Osheroff has used his status to speak out about global warming and sustainability – the theme’s of this year’s meeting. Last month, in fact, at a climate change symposium hosted by HRH Prince Charles in London, some 20 laureates called for urgent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Such action is more important than ever as the world moves towards a new climate change treaty to be thrashed out at the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen this December .
Several laureates at this year’s Lindau meeting will address the role that chemistry has to play in tackling climate change, and there will be two main panel events. On Tuesday 30 June, US chemist Sherwood Rowland, who shared the 1995 prize for his realization that chlorofluorocarbons contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer, will be one of four laureates taking part in a panel discussion about the role of chemistry in renewable energy. And on Friday 3 July on the island of Mainau, a three hour boat trip north of Lindau, co-recipient of the 1995 chemistry Nobel, Mario Molina, and 2005 chemistry winner Richard Schrock will join the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri, and other environmental policy experts to discuss global warming and sustainability.
But before that, expect to hear all three winners of last year’s prize tell the story of the “green fluorescent proteins” that, among many other things, have allowed researchers to breed pigs that glow in the dark; to hear winner of the 2007 chemistry Nobel, Gerhard Ertl, describe the surface chemistry that underpins everything from artificial fertilizers to your car’s catalytic converter; to learn about the role chemistry plays in neuroscience and in genetic variation; and, at least for those able to be at Lindau next week, to be chasing laureates …
|» Matthew Chalmers completed a PhD in physics and works as a freelance writer.|